Coping Techniques for Lonely Change Leaders (reprint)

I came across this little jewel in a recent (February 2014) HBR blog post, authored by Sachin Jain. The general advice certainly “rings true” with my previous experiences as  an internal change agent to large corporations, and in my ongoing consulting roles as a “business performance catalyst”. Here is the complete reprint of the article:

Leading change in large organizations is hard work and offers little instant gratification. To sustain the energy to lead that change, innovators must take proactive steps to protect their psyches. Many commentators on innovation focus on the substance and approach to work; however, they abstract away the mental grit needed to cope with what often can be a lonely existence.

Below, I draw on my experiences leading change efforts in sectors and institutions as varied as the government (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), academia (Harvard University), and industry (Merck) to describe some ways in which the innovator can sustain the passion needed to lead real change in complex organizations. The lessons I describe represent my views and are not the positions of the organizations where I’ve worked.

Maintain conviction. When joining an organization or stepping into a new role as a change leader, it is easy to believe that your job is to learn the ropes and conform. It’s often easier to feel like your job is to fit in and not to stand out. While some acculturation can be helpful, too much can undermine your real value: fresh perspective. If you have conviction, you’ll be recognized as a leader who leads with principle. Otherwise, you run the risk of “merely regressing to the mean,” as one CEO with whom I’ve worked describes it.

Avoid haters. In any large organization you will inevitably meet individuals who love to hate. Hating comes in many forms — undermining whispers, scolding for not having followed defined process, and backhanded praise — and often is cast as “trying to help.” Confront your haters with facts if they are misinformed, but otherwise ignore them as they are an endless drain on your energy. When I began in one role, I found myself trying hard to placate a group of individuals who did not support our change agenda; I learned after repeated attempts that they never would — and would only continue to waste precious time and energy and slow our momentum. Never miss an opportunity to learn about what you can do better, but also take a moment to consider the source and motives of your critics.

Cultivate a support system. Challenging an organization’s status quo never comes without frustration even in the very best of circumstances when organizations have declared a need to change. Surviving through the inevitable challenging times requires colleagues who understand both you and the organization. A robust support system will contain a mix of individuals who have the real power to help when you need it most and others who can lend perspective and remind you of the big picture when you inevitably lose your way. In my current role, my support system includes a mix of colleagues at peer companies, friends who intimately understand my personal strengths and weaknesses, sage senior leaders at my company, and members of the team I lead. The complementary perspectives always get us through times that test our resolve.

Celebrate success. When organizations are engaged in stressful and fast-paced change efforts, often the first things to go are celebrations of success. Celebration takes many forms: memos to recognize fellow leaders, parties to take a break from hard times, awards and bonuses to staff that have made a difference. Celebrating yourself and others will help you appreciate the many milestones that exist on the path to making sustainable change and keep you fresh for the next challenging situation ahead. When I worked at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Don Berwick, its administrator at the time, would almost daily take a few moments to send e-mails of thanks to frontline agency staff. The lift in morale from these small forms of recognition was palpable — and contagious.

Innovating in large, complex organizations carries with it the promise and potential of large-scale, wide-reaching impact that is hard to achieve in smaller, less complex settings. Yet the work is sometimes frustrating — with rewards that often are not apparent. Building the personal reserve to cope with and manage through the inevitable challenges that one will encounter in these settings will be the difference between making merely an incremental mark and leading lasting change.

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